A Misunderstood Topic
Unchallenged at the top of the list "nutritional elements people are aware of but really know absolutely nothing about" is Essential Fatty Acids (EFA's), their function and how they should be included in the diet. ...which is a shame, because when EFA's are out of balance the health effects are crushing.
Chronic heart disease, cardiovascular disease and cognitive disfunction are among the long term effects of EFA deficiency and imbalance. There are plenty of more immediate consequences as well, including systemic inflammation, impaired cognitive function and drained energy levels. Fortunately, EFA imbalance is one of the easier conditions to fix - and the positive effects on vibrant energy and overall health are remarkable.
First, it's useful to understand a bit about these critical fats. EFA's are poly-unsaturated fatty acids that the body requires for optimal health, but cannot synthesize on it's own. As such, we have to ensure that we are getting these fatty acids in our diet. EFA's are processed by the body to generate specific molecules that are used for a huge number of metabolic processes in the body and brain. Most of these resulting molecules are "signal molecules" that communicate information between cells. Without them, these communication pathways in the body sputter to a halt and the body suffers as a result.
As most people will recognize, EFA's are classified into two primary categories: Omega 3's and Omega 6's. Both are required for complete optimal metabolic function and their function in the body is similar in that they are both used to generate a wide range eicosanoids, the technical term for the aforementioned "signal molecules." Interestingly though, this doesn't mean that you should just eat all the Omega 3's and Omega 6's you can get indiscriminately. Omega 3's and Omega 6's compete against each other in the body for the enzymes needed to convert them into eicosanoids. Since different molecules result from the body's processing of Omega 3's and Omega 6's, respectively, both must be present in appropriate levels. If one of the two types of EFA's is disproportionately present, the eicosanoids derived from the other EFA will not be sufficiently produced.
3 vs. 6
Historically (i.e. before the last century), fats came primarily from animal fat and most people were eating a relatively balanced Omega 3 to Omega 6 ratio. The advent of vegetable oils (canola, soybean, etc) has changed this dramatically and the average western diet contains Omega 6's to Omega 3's at a ratio of around 15 to 1 and up to 40 to 1. This is a long way from the ideal ratio most researchers agree on of between 4 to 1 and 1 to 1.
There is a critical difference between Omega 3's and Omega 6's with respect to their effects on the body. The eicosanoids that are produced from Omega 6's are highly inflammatory. While the eicosanoids produced from Omega 3's are also inflammatory, they are only minimally so, especially compared to those from Omega 6's. So practically speaking, having an imbalance in dietary EFA's towards Omega 6's is going to create a significant inflammatory response in the body. Unfortunately, this is a condition that almost everyone in the western world suffers from.
Inflammation: The Enemy
Reducing inflammation is a theme you will encounter over and over here at Synchro. It is an idea that informs all of the products we create here at Synchro and it is an element of all the Synchro Life Design techniques we share through the website. This is for good reason, too. Inflammation is connected to a number of chronic diseases including heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. But even if you're young and these diseases seem a long way off, inflammation is still very much impacting your health performance. Systemic inflammation saps energy levels, causes your body to store more fat and negatively impacts mental function. Beyond that, when you're body is inflamed, you simply don't feel as good. More advanced inflammation is experienced as joint or muscle pain, but even low-level inflammation prevents you from feeling as good as you could. When your body doesn't feel as good to you this naturally has an impact on your emotional state and energy level, creating a two-fold energy-sapping effect. And to top it all off, inflammation is indistinguishable from fat from the exterior, so you won't look nearly as svelte as you would if you eliminated the inflammation.
The summary to all this: Reduce inflammation and you'll look and feel better.
Here's the reality: Everybody lives with some level of systemic inflammation. Everyone. It's a ubiquitous process in the body and has useful function in the healing process. Unfortunately, in our modern world, the inflammation system is continually over-triggered, usually by poor diet and other sources of toxins. Fortunately, there's some simple steps we can take to have a dramatic effect on systemic inflammation.
Reduce Omega 6s = Reduce Inflammation
As I mentioned above, Omega 3's and Omega 6's "compete" in the body for the enzymes that convert them into the signal molecules eicosanoids. If we can alter our diet to favor Omega 3 metabolism, we will have less eicosanoids from Omega 6's and as a result, lower systemic inflammation.
But using Omega 3's in a strategy to reduce systemic inflammation is not as simple as adding more Omega 3's to your diet. As I mentioned above, it is the balance between the two that is critical. Thus, being aware of sources of Omega 6's and actively reducing them in your diet is equally as important as adding Omega 3's. Below is a table of the oils that have the highest Omega 6 content:
Anything on this list or any food containing any of these oils should be in the "use sparingly" or "avoid" categories.
Supplementing With Omega 3's
It is a reality of living in the western world that plant oils are everywhere. Even the most diligent eater will likely have Omega 6 levels that are too high. You can avoid them entirely at home, but if you go out to eat you can be sure that your food will be prepared with vegetable oils that are high in Omega 6's. Reducing Omega 6 consumption is critical and necessary, but it is not enough. Supplementing with additional Omega 3's is the only way to have your Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio approach the 4:1 to 1:1 ratio we're looking for.
Plant Sources vs. Fish Oil vs. Krill Oil
There are many sources of Omega 3's, but they are not created equal. Choose the wrong source and your body could not be absorbing even close to the amount you need - or even worse, you could be eating a toxic supplement.
There are a number of plant sources of Omega 3's, but all have their own problems. Hemp oil, walnut oil and several other nut oils are decent sources of Omega 3's, but still have all have far more Omega 6's than 3's. As such, they won't do much to help bring your EFA's into balance.
Flax Oil and Chia are the only two common plant oils that are legitimate sources of Omega 3's and have lower levels of Omega 6's. Flax has an Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio of 1:40, so at first glance it looks like an excellent candidate for supplementation. Unfortunately, first glances are deceiving. The specific type of Omega 3's found in flax oil and chia (ALA) is not absorbed or used very efficiently by the body. ALA must be converted by the metabolism into DHA or EPA to be useful to the body, and this is an inefficient process in which a lot of ALA goes to waste. Because of this inefficiency, you would have to eat 40 GRAMS of flax oil to deliver the same amount of useable Omega 3's that 1 GRAM of krill oil would deliver. Flax oil is also extremely vulnerable to oxidation, a process in which light or heat ruin the oil and make it toxic. So while you could technically eat A TON of flax oil to balance your Omega 3's and 6's, this doesn't seem like the best route, especially when there are better options available. If you're a vegan and absolutely will not consider supplementing with fish or krill oil, eating huge amounts of flax oil is the way to go. It's worth noting that I had been eating only plant-based foods for the better part of a decade before I got tired of not being able to get Omega 3's from plant sources (eating 40g of flax oil is gross...). I incorporated krill oil and it is now one of exactly two non-plant-based foods I eat (grass-fed ghee is the other, also for omega 3's and other beneficial fats).
Fish oil has historically been the go-to source for supplementation. in it's purest form, it is a great source of highly-useable Omega 3's and has insignificant levels of Omega 6's. Sounds perfect. But the key word there is purest. This critical problem with fish oil has been exposed in the past few years - most fish oil has significant problems with impurities. The first source of impurities comes from the fact that our oceans (especially in certain regions) are polluted with heavy metals and other chemicals. Because fish are a couple steps up on the food chain, they take on not only toxins from the water, but from the small animals they eat for food. This is a process referred to as bioaccumulation, the higher on the food chain you are, the more toxins you will be present in your tissues. A lot of the toxins are removed in the process of isolating the fish oil, but certain toxins inevitably remain. The second issue with fish oil is that, like flax, it is somewhat vulnerable to oxidation. Fish oil is less vulnerable than flax, but if your fish oil supplement was exposed to heat in transit or storage at any point, oils will have oxidized and your supplement will be toxic. If you can find a source of fish oil that comes from regions known to have clean waters (like the arctic of antarctic) and you are confident it hasn't been exposed to heat or light at any point, fish oill can still be a great choice for Omega 3 supplementation. Nordic Naturals is one brand that meets all these requirements for me. But there is an even safer choice out there...
Krill oil has come to popularity lately because of the aforementioned issues with fish oil. Krill are small, shrimp-like invertebrates that serve as food for all types of aquatic animals ranging from whales to small fish. They are lower on the food chain than fish are, and naturally have lower toxin levels than fish. Additionally, they are abundant in a form Omega 3's that are both highly useable for your body and very resistant to oxidation. These Omega 3's, called phosphorylated-EFA and -DHA, are absorbed and used better than even the Omega 3's in fish oil. Because they are naturally resistant to oxidation, they are far more likely to arrive to your home in their pristine state.
If you're actively working to cut out Omega 6's from your diet, taking about 1000mg of krill oil will be sufficient to bring your Omega 3 to 6 levels back into balance. If you are less diligent with watching you Omega 6 consumption, 2-3000mg of Krill Oil is a good idea. If you're just starting to supplement with Omega 3's, I'd also recommend doing 2000mg/day in the first 2 weeks and then dropping down to 1000mg/day. This will help to bring your levels into balance more quickly and you'll likely start seeing results in reduced inflammation in that period.
Our favorite brand of Krill Oil is Jarrow. They are very forthcoming about their Antarctic sourcing and they offer 3rd party testing showing low toxin levels.
So now that you know what's up with your Omega 3's and 6's, start working on this! You cant get anywhere near optimal health if your body is in a state of constant inflammation, and balancing your 3's and 6's is the number 1 thing you can do to address this. And as always...